This film review originally appeared in the Australian Jewish News on December 26, 2002
Directed by Spike Jonze
Written by Charlie Kaufman
Starring Nicholas Cage, Meryl Streep and Chris Cooper
Back in 1999, the director/writer team of Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman made Being John Malkovich – an unlikely black comedy/fantasy story about a young man who finds a “portal” into John Malkovich’s brain. The team’s second film Adaptation is difficult and challenging to categorise. The story revolves around the agonised attempts by Charlie Kaufman (who is played by Nicholas Cage) to write his second film script, an adaptation of the (real) non-fiction work “The Orchid Thief” by “New Yorker” staff writer Susan Orlean (played by Meryl Streep). This book describes the adventures of John Laroche (played by Chris Cooper in this film), a man obsessed with his love for rare orchids.
Charlie Kaufman is, of course, the actual writer of Adaptation, and has made a fictional (we think?) version of himself as the major character – or, we should say, characters, because he has a twin brother Donald (also played by Cage). On one level, Adaptation acts as a sequel to Being John Malkovich, playing with inter-related elements: we see scenes of Kaufman (Cage) on the actual set of “Malkovich”, and his thwarted attempts to have himself noticed. This Charlie Kaufman (the film character, get it?) is obsessive, shy, sexually repressed and depressed – in many ways the stereotype of the neurotic Jewish screenwriter. One of Charlie’s problems is that his brother Donald is everything he is not: popular with the women, confident and emotionally uncomplicated. And to make matters worse, Donald – who effectively moves in with Charlie – has taken a short screenwriting course (with real-life expert Robert McKee) and is quickly starting to become successful, totally unplagued by Charlie’s debilitating writer’s block. Charlie is so frustrated that he later takes McKee’s course, with hilarious results.
Cage is an unusual and inspired choice for the Kaufman character: while he has played tough action roles (“Face/Off”, “Con Air”), he has also played mournful – City of Angels, Moonstruck and Peggy Sue Got Married. He brings an interesting physicality to the dual roles, developing shadings of the neurotic Jewish writer which go beyond the familiar Woody Allen stereotype.
Meryl Streep brings a wonderful combination of whimsy, obsessional searching and focus to her role as Susan Orlean, but her greatest moments are with Chris Cooper (who played Kevin Spacey’s neighbour in American Beauty), who really steals the film as John Laroche. Cooper’s gap-toothed, edgy, philosophising redneck is a true screen original, and the most haunting part of Adaptation.
Adaptation is highly inventive, playful, intelligent and yet juvenile at the same time. It also has – like Being John Malkovich before it – real “chutzpah”. How many second-time screenwriters can afford to write a film about themselves (even a fictional version) and get away with it? From its film references to Casablanca (written by twin Jewish brothers Julius and Philip Epstein) to Robert McKee’s appearance as himself, Adaptation is a film about film-making and the process of screenwriting, reminiscent of The Player. The film could have been an enormous, self-obsessed and uninteresting flop, but its imagination soars. The writing is occasionally uneven, and the film takes a late dip into (for me) unnecessary violence. But this is Hollywood creativity at its contemporary best.